Food Services Bust Budgets as AZ Schools Reopen Online

Most Arizona schools are reopening with students at home taking online classes, but districts still are required to provide free or reduced-cost meals for pickup by students who qualify for them. (Jannoon028/Adobe Stock)

August 19, 2020

TEMPE, Ariz. — As many Arizona schools reopen this week with online classes, school meals are among the logistical concerns putting a strain on district budgets.

Schools must make free or reduced-cost breakfasts and lunches available to students who qualify. Most districts are packaging the meals for students or their parents to pick up each day. However, unless additional pandemic stimulus funds arrive soon, said Emma Kitzman, nutrition services director for the Tempe Elementary School District, that plan is not sustainable.

“For lunch, we typically feed about 8,600 meals. We did just over 1,000, and we’re paying all employees that are working,” she said. “So, it’s been financially devastating. I mean, we’re talking a lot right now, almost $1 million.”

Multiply that by the state’s 230 public school districts and add sanitizing, safety gear and distancing barriers to the mix, and Arizona education starts the school year with almost a half-billion-dollar deficit. Most districts say they don’t have the reserves to cover the added costs.

On Monday, the first day of school in her suburban Phoenix district, Kitzman said, food service went smoothly, offering contact-less, curbside meal pickups. Most Arizona districts are following a similar plan outlined by the state Department of Education, with some also using school buses to deliver meals to pick-up points in neighborhoods. She added that her workers are closely following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety guidelines.

“When you’re coming in contact with students, they’re in face shields and a face mask and gloves,” she said, “so a lot of precautions protecting our employees, but also just keeping students safe, and administrators and teachers.”

Most Arizona districts will wait until October to see if the pandemic has abated sufficiently for on-campus learning. Kitzman predicted that when students return to school, the costs for safety gear and sanitation services will only increase. She said parents should check with their child’s school district for information on meal distribution.

The state guidelines are online at azed.gov, and the CDC guidelines are at cdc.gov.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service – AZ

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